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Messianic Traditions

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Messianic Traditions

    Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has a messianic tradition. According to hadith, prior to the end of time, God will send a leader to the world to deliver his people from oppression. Called the Mahdi (divinely guided one), he will arrive when the world has reached its worst state of affairs. He will spread justice, restore the faith, and defeat the enemies of Islam.

    Muslims agree on certain characteristics of the Mahdi. He will be from the Prophet's family and will bear the Prophet's name. His father's name will be the same as the name of the Prophet's father ( Abd Allah ). Miraculous signs will accompany his appearance, and he will bring great wealth, which he will distribute generously among the faithful. His reign, however, will last a relatively short time.

    Longing for a Golden Age.

    The Muslim community faced its first political crisis when the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 . His followers disagreed about who should succeed him. One group believed that the Prophet Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib , and Ali's descendants as the imams of the Muslim community. The majority, however, elected Abu Bakr , an early convert from Mecca, to become the first caliph. The dispute eventually resulted in the division of Islam into two main traditions—Shi'i and Sunni.

    After a period of unrest, Ali became the fourth caliph in 656 , raising hopes among his supporters that his rule would restore Islam to its original state. Ali was assassinated, however, and his followers lost control of the caliphate. Thereafter, religiously oriented Muslims—particularly Ali's supporters (known as the Shi'is)—developed the concept of a perfect leader. He would redress the wrongs committed against the oppressed and establish justice, by which the Shi'is meant the abolition of the caliphate of their rivals and the return to pure Islam. They also believed that this messianic savior would convert the world to Islam.

    Rallying the People.

    By the end of the 700s, Sunni Muslims accepted the historical caliphate as a continuation of Muhammad's earthly position as leader of the ummah (community of believers). They viewed the Mahdi as a future “caliph of God” who would not emerge until the end of time. Shi'is, by contrast, rejected the historical caliphate as human interference in the fulfillment of the divine plan. Shi'is eventually came to believe in a hidden Mahdi who would restore the ideal Muslim order.

    For centuries, Shi'i Muslims interpreted contemporary events according to their messianic views. Each generation believed the Mahdi would soon appear and recruit them to launch a revolution under his command. Shi'i political leaders took advantage of these expectations to justify rebellion against Sunni governments. Some of these Shi'i movements, such as the Abbasid revolution in 750 and the Fatimid revolution during the 900s, were successful. Nevertheless, many of these attempts failed, and Shi'is eventually came to regard the Mahdi as future messianic imam who would appear when God commanded him to take charge of the world.

    Shi'i Islam split into several branches based on differing views of the messiah. The Twelvers, or Imamis, recognize the spiritual leaders of eleven imams. They believe the twelfth imam, who disappeared, is the Mahdi. God is concealing the whereabouts of this imam for an unspecified period of time. Someday, he will return to dispense justice. The Seveners, or Ismailis, only recognize seven imams. They believe that the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, named his son Ismail to be his successor, but Ismail died before his father. After Jafar's death in 765 , some Shi'is still considered Ismail to be the seventh imam and the Mahdi.

    Enduring Expectation.

    Throughout Islamic history, a number of Muslim reformers have professed to be the Mahdi, particularly in times of social or political crisis. In 1495 Sayyid Muhammad , a Sunni Muslim of Jaunpur, India, claimed he was the messiah. Sunni jurists considered him a heretic and had him executed.

    Messianic revolts against colonial powers sprang up across the Islamic world during the 1800s in such places as India, Algeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. Muslims yearned for a leader to deliver them from the oppression of the Europeans. In Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abd Allah proclaimed himself Mahdi. The Mahdiyah, as his movement became known, sought to overthrow the British and Ottoman-Egyptian forces in the region and establish God's ideal rule on earth.

    Some Shi'i Muslims believed that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a prelude to the Mahdi's return. On November 20, 1979, the Sunni Jahaymin al-Utaybi led a major messianic uprising in Mecca. The Saudi government crushed the movement. Many Muslims later believed the Persian Gulf War ( 1990 – 1991 ) was a sign of the end of time. Believers across the Islamic world still await the Mahdi and the creation of an ideal order. See also Ali ibn Abi Talib ; Babism; Baha'i; Ismaili; Ithna Ashari; Mahdiyah; Shi'i Islam; Sunni Islam.

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